The Invisible Psychological Contracts We Make with Our Families

The Invisible Psychological Contracts We Make with Our Families

The Unbearable Lightness of Maintaining Individuality and Being Connected

“Whom we are related to
in the complex web of family ties
over all generations
is unalterable by us.”
— Elizabeth A. Carter and Monica McGoldrick
—-The Family Life Cycle

Decisions, decisions. Have you ever wondered about why you do what you do when you do it, where you choose to do it, and how you do it, with whomever you choose to do it with? (Hopefully this doesn’t strike too many of you as coming from the department of redundancy department). Me neither. But lets just think about this for a minute. How often do we truly make decisions for ourselves based on our own core beliefs and values? I’d suggest not nearly as often as we’d like to believe we do.

So what gets in the way? (Round up the usual suspects). The unspoken rules of the family we grew up in. The inevitable “stuck togetherness” that Murray Bowen first noted, in a now somewhat archaic formulation, as “the undifferentiated family ego mass.” This concept was subsequently refined and expanded into thoughts about the nuclear family emotional system and projection process, and the multigenerational family transmission process resulting in multiple interlocking triangles.

In the process of fusion, an individual anxiously focuses on relationships and gives up “self,” resulting in physical illness, emotional illness or a problem in social functioning. The question that reflects this process is: What do I give up about myself to be part of the family group?

Ronald B. Cohen MD of discusses the process of self-differentiation.

The flip-side/mirror image of fusion is the process of emotional “cut-off,” an equally reactive state wherein the question is what do I NOT give up about myself to avoid being part of the family group? Unfortunately this is a state of an equally low level of differentiation, which often results in over-investment and fusion in new relationships.

So what are these unspoken rules of family togetherness behavior that we reflexively adhere to or reactively reject without due consideration of what conscious responses would be in our own best interest? Herein Cohen’s top ten list, reduced to five in the interest of time and space.

Rule Number 1: What happens in the house stays in the house.

Rule Number 2: Don’t talk politics or religion at the dinner table.

Rule Number 3: Do what makes you happy as long as it’s what I want you to do, even if I don’t tell you what it is.

Rule Number 4: Don’t ask about the things you’re not supposed to know about.

Rule Number 5: Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

Whether you are fused and enmeshed, or conflicted, distant, cut-off and non-communicative, you remained undifferentiated and out of control. If your behavior is reactive, whether positively or negatively, you are not self-directed.

The process of self-differentiation consists of partially freeing oneself from the emotional entrapment of one’s family of origin, while developing a unique, personal, authentic one-to-one relationship with each member of your family. It is then possible to be emotionally connected without fusing into emotional oneness. One can be both connected, and sufficiently self-aware to make decisions on one’s own, regardless of “The Invisible Psychological Contracts We Make with Our Families.”

Please share your thoughts and experiences concerning the spoken and unspoken rules of your growing up in the “Leave a Reply” box below. If you found this post helpful, please don’t keep it a secret. You are encouraged to click on the buttons in the second to the right hand column at the bottom of the page and share this article with your own networks. To request more information please click here. Looking forward to continuing the conversation.

Ronald B Cohen, MD, PC Ronald B. Cohen, MD
Bowen Family Systems Coach
1 Barstow Road, Suite P-10
Great Neck, NY 11021
(516) 466-7530

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  1. Miriam Bellamy on August 8, 2014 at 4:17 pm said:

    Great question about what do I give up in order to be part of the family group. Equally great question about what I may refuse to give up so I can justify being separate from my family group. Questions I will ponder on my way to visit Mom this weekend. 🙂

    Also – really love the tree graphic at the top of the post. Did you create that? It’s stunning!

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on August 13, 2014 at 5:54 pm said:

      Hi Miriam,

      Sorry for the delay in my response. Thank you for your kind and supportive thoughts. How did the visit with your mother go, or more specifically what level of differentiation were you able to maintain in the face of the pressures of your nuclear, multigenerational and extended families of origin. Quoting from my mentor John W. Jacobs, MD’s lecture notes from his mentor Betty Carter, LCSW, “Dealing one on one with parents is often the most emotional thing a person does in their life. Often you have to restrain clients. The point is not to tell parents off or to quickly forgive them for the trouble they have created without looking at it. The tendency for reactivity is so strong that the job of the therapist is to rehearse with the patient each task before him/her. Question if it is too big or too small a task.”

      The tree graphic is in the public domain from

      Best of luck on your unfolding journey of a lifetime.


      — Ron

  2. Nat on March 24, 2015 at 3:35 am said:

    Hello Dr. Ron. I appreciated this article, as well as your invitation to comment by encouraging readers to not keep it secret if your article resonated with them. I’ve been thinking of the contents of your article in-depth and for several years now, and would like to share a bit about my family stuff.

    I feel like my family would say we are a small but generally happy, healthy, loving family, with some lovable quirks that just make life more fun and funny.

    To exist harmoniously in my family, I feel like I give up:
    – My vulnerability
    – My curiosity
    – My desire to connect authentically
    – My deep desire for justice (i.e. more and more I find myself “letting it go”, whatever the issue is, because I can’t safely or effectively or sustainably navigate jungles of dysfunction alone, my own included).

    I’m 38 years old and the concepts of self-differentiation and identity are complicated for me because my formative years were profoundly shaped by very few people with a whole wack of dysfunction.

    I feel like when I try to be my real self with my family and rub up against and speak to whatever dysfunction rears its head, I am quickly regarded and dismissed as the black sheep and trouble maker of the family. Being the only gay person in the family just reinforces this black sheep-ism. I feel that my homo sexuality is tolerated rather than openly and lovingly embraced, but forget about me bringing this feeling up with my family, for I would be told I’m “over-sensitive” and that I just harp on the gay thing. That’s just one thing.

    Here is a second thing, and a recent example of a conversation between me, my mom and my sister that I “let go” after my sister’s first sentence, and how it would’ve gone had I been vulnerable:

    My Sister: Mom you are the peace keeper of the family, always making sure everyone is okay and nobody’s feelings are hurt.

    Me: Yes, mom wants peace, we all do. But conflict is very normal, and when it comes up in our family, we need to work it out. I feel like mom’s peace-keeping is more like sweeping things under the rug and not talking about difficult things. This is understandable since we have no history in our family of safe and effective communication, especially around conflict resolution, but I wish it was different.

    My Mom: Oh Nat, that is so not nice and not true! You have such a sharp tongue and are always so good at hurting me.

    My Sister: [rolls her eyes, huffs, and says something flippant and disrespectful, which pisses me off, but which I say nothing about, or else it’ll escalate and result in stone cold silence and misery all around, with my mom changing the topic to something unrelated so as to fill the silence]

    Oy, I now have a headache just from constructing that half-real, half-fictional example of a snippet of how my family conversations go if I dare participate in them beyond nods and smiles of compliance.

    In summary, in order to belong in my family of origin, I feel like I give up myself and my needs. I feel like I am a puppet in a Hallmark greeting card that is supposed to smile and say all the ‘right things’ in order to uphold the image of the happy family we all are. I feel that my resistence to it is felt by my family, and they in turn resist me and feel like they have to walk on eggshells around me, because I do speak up from time to time, and hardly ever to their liking, which is why I do it less and less.

    Sorry for the lengthy comment. Looking forward to any insights you may have.


    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on March 26, 2015 at 3:28 pm said:

      Hi Nat,

      Thank you for sharing personal details of your struggle. It sounds like you speak from a place of great personal pain.

      First and foremost be kind and empathic with yourself. This is an incredibly stressful and anxiety-producing situation. The good news is that you can succeed in self-differentiation, learning new, more productive behaviors that are in the entire family’s best interest, regardless of whether or not anyone else in your family joins with you in the process. It takes only one thoughtful, committed, family member to improve the functioning of family relationships. I’ve written about this in several blogs including On Becoming an Adult, How to Stay Sane in a Crazy Family, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – The Hidden Life of Family Secrets, You Can Get There From Here, and On Differentiation.

      For those of us who consider it important enough to invest the time and energy, and choose to engage with the goal of becoming an authentic adult, the process requires constant vigilance to the pull of fusion, cut-offs and triangles. Self-differentiation is about setting appropriate limits and boundaries, staying connected to one’s extended family of origin while maintaining emotional independence and self-sufficiency. Tasks include redeveloping personal relationships with key family members, repairing cutoffs, detriangulating from conflicts, and changing the part one plays in emotionally charged vicious cycles.

      Questions about how best to respond include: (1) What can you do to help resolve the conflict, reduce stress and anxiety, improve communication, and promote active problem solving and healing? (2) How do you maintain both your autonomy and the connections with emotionally important people in your life? (3) Which behaviors will help make things better no matter what anyone else does? and (4) How do you deal with differences without loosing connection?

      Most importantly, is there a course of action that will be productive and cannot be sabotaged?

      The simple answer is yes; you can make change in your family relationships even without the participation of other family members. A change in any one family member’s behavior creates change in the entire family’s relationships. The process consists of the following three steps:

      1. Change yourself and you change the relationship.
      2. Be prepared for your family’s reaction. They may not welcome the new you.
      3. Respond to your family’s reaction with new, unexpected, more differentiated behavior.

      Step 1- Resolve to be different

      Start by distinguishing what you want in life for yourself as opposed to the roles, rules, stories, expectations, and taboos you learned growing up. Becoming more ‘responsible’ for one’s self allows one to act more ‘responsibly’ toward others. To engage in this process is to provide a platform for maximum growth and development.

      Don’t broadcast your intention. Keep your own counsel and take an “I” positions. Do not share your efforts with others. Holding up a sign that says “see me being different” will destroy the entire process. Discussing your plan with another person almost always guarantees failure. You are working to develop a unique one-to-one relationship with each and every individual in your family system. This is an individual and somewhat solitary process. It is not household group therapy.

      Step 2 – Be prepared for your family’s reaction, they may not welcome the new you. Indeed the initial reaction may be negative, hostile and critical.

      Be prepared for the worst. You are disrupting the status quo of your family system and it will push back. In his essay on Self-Differentiation, Bowen wrote, “There are three predictable steps in the family reaction to differentiation. They are:

      1. “You are wrong,” or some version of that;
      2. “Change back” which can be communicated in many different ways; and
      3. “If you do not, these are the consequences.”

      An important part of the process is to develop realistic expectations when moving toward changing your part in your family’s dance. Learn to observe non-reactively the relationship patterns in your original family and explore your role in these patterns. Remember, you are completely in control of your process and end up in a better place whether or not anybody else in the family signs on.

      Step 3 – Respond to your family’s reaction with new, unexpected, more differentiated behavior

      Respond productively even if unfortunately others do not. Review the new knowledge you have acquired and evaluate the interactions and responses you have experienced. What worked and what didn’t, where did you get stuck and who in the family was most distressed. Then plan what you might do different next time in order to get a response that is more in line with what you are looking for. Now steady yourself and commit fully.

      Strive to bring your behavior more in line with your deepest beliefs, even if this means upsetting family members by disobeying family “rules.” You are learning how to deal with differences without losing connections. The more responsible you can be to your own values and beliefs, the greater the likelihood of strong, resilient friendships and secure intimate partner relationships. If you are tied up with all of the stuff and rules and roles of your family of origin, it is really hard to figure out whom you are and what you want to do with your life.

      Change happens on three levels. The simplest and least anxiety provoking move involves altering rote patterns of interaction with family members that have no vitality – i.e., doing things differently in ways that signal interest rather than obligation. A second, more challenging, move is the purposeful deepening of authentic, personal, one-to-one relationships with family members in circumstances outside larger family gatherings. The third and boldest move involves withdrawing from back channel family processes and asking at all times for direct, transparent family interaction. The pathway is paved with difficulty and challenge but the result of second-order systemic change is almost magical.

      A few tricks of the trade include:

      1. Be proactive
      2. Manage your time
      3. Limit the duration of stressful interactions
      4. Maintain focus
      5. Avoid triangles
      6. Avoid distance & cut-offs

      Do not be daunted or overwhelmed, a little change goes a long way. The process does get easier with time for at least two reasons; (1) as each relationship is addressed there is that much less work to be done and (2) the skills are transferrable so one does not have to start all over again from scratch. Seemingly paradoxically you cannot solve personal difficulties alone. There is no differentiation without connection, no autonomy without healthy interdependence.

      So there you have it. If you can change your part in the family drama AND maintain your change in the face of your family’s predictable initial negative reaction AND respond to your family’s reaction with new, unexpected, more differentiated behavior WHILE maintaining an emotional connection without taking on anyone else’s “stuff”, THEN you set the stage for the possibility that others in your family will also begin to change. And if they don’t, you still end up in a better place for having engaged in the process.

      When all else fails, consulting with a well-trained family systems therapist can help keep the process moving forward in a positive direction.

      Best of luck on your unfolding journey of a lifetime.


      — Ron

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